Ben Simmons Could Upend The NBA's Power Structure With One Decision

One type of Ben Simmons Instagram post has to make Philadelphia 76ers fans more nervous than others. Simmons hasn’t produced any of those posts yet in 2019—he doesn’t break up his usual stream of fashion-forward, athlete-brained aspirationalism all that often—but he did get one off on December 26. That day, Simmons shared a photo of himself with his agent, Rich Paul, and Cavs forward Tristan Thompson, another Paul client. “Always good seeing the family,” his caption read. It was his first post of the kind since early September, when he posted consecutive photos with his mentor, another client of Paul’s at Klutch Sports Group: LeBron James.

Simmons has been involved with Klutch since he was a high-school player new to America. In 2014, a year after Simmons moved from Australia to Orlando to play at Montverde Academy, Klutch hired Simmons’ sister Emily Bush. She operated as a kind of advance liaison to Simmons during the two years before he was eligible to sign with an agency, which he did as soon as he could.

This relationship, and Simmons’ genesis as a sort of patient zero of modern NBA superstar machinations, are on display in the curiously underexamined 2016 Showtime documentary One & Done. The film chronicles Simmons’ sole season at LSU, but it also opens a window onto one of the most important business partnerships in a league increasingly driven by them.

“I know I’m ready to play in the NBA right now,” an 18-year-old Simmons says at the beginning of the documentary. “That’s been my dream since I was eight years old. It was never college.” Simmons’s year in college was defined by that sort of frankness. He was unapologetically informed and transparent about his value, and he seemed to consider his entire amateur experience a referendum on the exploitation of college sports. In One & Done, Simmons has daily phone calls with his sister, leaning on her for the lessons she’s learned as a marketing professional and through her marriage to the former NFL running back Michael Bush. Simmons’ family serves as the film’s fuck-the-NCAA chorus. “If you have a child prodigy who plays the violin amazingly, no one’s saying to them, ‘You must go to college for a year before you join the philharmonic orchestra,’” Simmons’ mother says.

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Simmons chose to endure his stopover at LSU for family reasons: His godfather, David Patrick, works as an assistant coach there. The lack of elite talent around Simmons on the roster led to an underwhelming season, and the documentary tracks Simmons’ growing resentment for the NCAA as the usual hot-take tyrants speak down to him and his team’s struggles, often in strikingly paternalistic tones. “This is why you go to school: to learn,” Michael Wilbon says in a TV address to Simmons after a narrow loss to Marquette early in the season. Fans on Twitter begin saying they hope Simmons breaks both his legs.

“The NCAA is really fucked up,” Simmons says on his way back from a Walmart, where he empties most of his checking account to buy some furniture. “Everybody is making money except for the players.” By mid-season, Simmons is openly skipping all of his classes, because his 1.8 GPA requirement for playing eligibility only matters in the fall semester. When criticized for this by his coach at practice, he appears utterly unfazed. When the season ends without a March Madness appearance, Simmons swiftly drops out of school, leaves Baton Rouge, and moves to Cleveland. As the tournament runs its course, Simmons is away on business: signing with Klutch—“I believe [Klutch] is another family for me,” he says—and beginning his pre-draft training regimen while courting sponsors.

Simmons’ older brother Sean Tribe lives with him in Cleveland during this process; the relationship between the two is now at the core of a sitcom called Brotherly Love, being developed by LeBron’s Springhill Entertainment for NBC. That show, written by Fresh Off The Boat producers and Michael Levin, co-host of the popular Sixers podcast The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, is about a multi-ethnic Australian family adjusting to the sports fame in Philadelphia.

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How long Simmons will stay in Philadelphia is a question that promises to become more pressing by the summer of 2020, if not sooner. As recent developments with client Anthony Davis have shown, Klutch is an unusually bold agency, and one that shares James’s outlook when it comes to clients knowing their worth and demanding to be paid accordingly. That spirit was clearly evident in Simmons’ distaste for the NCAA, and sitcom aside, it’s worth wondering whether Simmons’ family plan is any less instrumental or goal-oriented where Philadelphia is concerned.

No NBA player has ever turned down a maximum extension of a rookie contract offer, for which Simmons will be eligible in July. The league has structured the collective bargaining agreement specifically to give franchises the ability to offer significantly more money to the young stars they drafted. This is meant to create competitive balance and prevent talent from escaping smaller markets, and it has worked that way. But this system also runs counter to players choosing their own destiny by forcing them to take a lower salary if they want to play anywhere but with the franchise that picked them. A player choosing to reject this extension would be a powerful challenge to the league’s intentions, and a shot across the bow in the looming power struggle between emerging stars and the franchises that yearn to control them.

Some Instagram captions and a documentary film no one saw are not reasons to think Simmons will do it, but for curiosity’s sake here’s what would happen if Simmons became the first player ever to turn down that extension. He would, instead of locking in several more years in Philadelphia, accept a default qualifying offer from the Sixers that would pay him around $10 million over the 2020-21 season; that’s a fraction of what he’d stand to make that year by locking in a rookie-max extension, which would be the same $148 million, five-year deal that Joel Embiid signed in 2017. In the summer of 2021, after that option season, Simmons would be an unrestricted free agent; his mentor on the Lakers would then be 36 years old, and likely looking for a steady hand into which he might pass his franchise’s torch—or, if Klutch is able to make good on their recently failed efforts, another star to share it with Davis.

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It is clear that the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, Magic Johnson, is extremely into the prospect of this particular future. Simmons himself appeared to wish for it during the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery—in One & Done, he is shown watching the broadcast of the event and miming his hypothetical reactions if either the Sixers or the Lakers got the first pick and the right to sign him. When he imagines the Lakers getting it, he celebrates; when he imagines going to the Sixers, he shrugs wryly. Earlier in the movie, a Lakers blanket is visible in the background of his apartment. Currently, he dates L.A.-based famous person Kendall Jenner. You can decide what this all means.

If Klutch were to go beyond the power plays they’ve attempted in their ongoing Davis liberation gambit and attempt to bring Simmons to Los Angeles ahead of schedule, it would be unprecedented in more ways than one. Unlike Davis, Simmons plays for a team that is both competently run and competitive; it has both been built around him and built for success throughout his whole career. He played in the second round of the playoffs as a rookie and now, in his second season, the Sixers are a legitimate contender for the NBA Finals. There is no organizational malpractice to point to here.

But contemporary NBA superstars don’t really need to tell those sorts of justifying stories anymore. Kevin Durant blazed a trail when he left a competitive Thunder team to join the Warriors juggernaut and is now history’s most miserable repeat Finals MVP. Kawhi Leonard forced a trade away from the San Antonio Spurs, one of the most effective organizations in all of pro sports, seemingly for no reason other than that he didn’t really want to play there anymore. A summer earlier, Kyrie Irving did something quite similar. They all did what they wanted.

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It might well be that Simmons will sign his extension and things will go on as they have for years. But there really are compatibility issues with how Simmons and Joel Embiid best play offense, as the respective comfort zones of each tend to impinge upon the maximum groove of the other. Probably more important to Simmons’ future, though, is that Embiid became the face of the franchise during the 2016-17 season, before Simmons ever took the floor. This was good for the team’s future, but it also likely disrupted a business plan that, as One & Done shows, had become something like the Simmons family’s shared work while their chosen son was still moving through puberty.

Cartoon steam billowed out of every player’s ears towards the end of a spicy 119-113 Sixers win…

If Klutch pushes past convention again to get Simmons someplace where he might be differently and more advantageously exposed, it could set a new precedent for how NBA superstars control their futures. That would make Simmons the young surrogate for James’ career-defining mission of asserting and expanding his own star power. It would be bad news for the team that picked Simmons, but this particular fight—LeBron’s, which is now Klutch’s, and which might someday soon be one Simmons chooses to join—has always been about a freedom that necessarily eclipses any franchise’s goals.

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John Wilmes is a writer and professor in Chicago, and the co-host of the world’s horniest Michael Jordan podcast.

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